February 7, 2019 § Leave a comment
Last week, we subsisted on a steady drip of peppermint hot chocolate (#polarvortex). This week, it’s in the 60s and my kids are in t-shirts. These mercurial fluctuations are not for the faint of heart, so while we are at the whim of Mother Nature, we may as well attempt to lose ourselves in a book which doesn’t take itself too seriously. As it turns out, my daughter and I just finished the perfect one. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 8, 2016 § 3 Comments
I am rarely at a loss for words. But, in thinking about how to recommend Melissa Sweet’s Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White (Ages 8 to adult), a 158-page tribute to one of children’s literature’s most enduring legacies, I find that I am. You see, I would like to reproduce nearly every one of White’s sublime quotations peppered throughout this biography—of which there are too many to count—yet doing so without Sweet’s exquisite accompanying collages would feel bereft. Plus, in the chapter dedicated to White’s rewrite of The Elements of Style, the tiny but quintessential guide to writing originally penned by his former Cornell professor, William Strunk, White makes clear his disdain for “needless words.”
So, in the spirit of White, and because Melissa Sweet’s biography of the writer stands alone in absolute perfection, I will attempt to keep my words (somewhat) brief. I encourage you to experience this marvel for yourself—that is, before you gift it to an aspiring child writer, or to anyone with a fondness for boating, impeccable grammar, farm animals, New England, and manual typewriters. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 31, 2014 § 7 Comments
Reading to our children can sometimes be the best way to slow down and live in the moment; to see the world through the wonder of young eyes and to have our own faith restored. Never has this been truer for me than in the past month. This December, reading threw me a lifeline. And boy, did I need it.
What is normally a time of sweet anticipation (cutting down our Christmas tree! driving the kids around to look at decorations! shopping for the perfect wrapping paper!), felt this year like an insurmountable list of to dos. The word drudgery came to mind on more than a few occasions. With my husband traveling for much of the month, I was exhausted. With every step, it felt like my legs were at risk of crumpling, of reducing me to a cast-aside pile of expired Christmas lights. The rain didn’t help (because who enjoys tromping around a Christmas tree farm in the pouring rain?). No matter how many times I scaled back my expectations (the teachers will get store-bought gifts this year!), I never felt the burden lighten.
I don’t have to tell you what our stress level does to our ability to parent with patience. As my daughter erupted into yet another round of crocodile-tear hysterics (over, at one point, a hypothetical snowball fight with her brother), I began to have fantasies of walking into the neighbor’s mass of giant inflatable Santas and Frostys and never coming out.
And then, one afternoon, I was talking to a friend. She was lamenting her frustration at not knowing what to do with her son while his little sister took a 45-minute dance class. Lately, the son had been unleashing a litany of complaints about having to be dragged along. The mom enlightened me: he has already had a snack, his homework is done, he’s exhausted, and all the toys in the waiting area of the studio are for younger kids.
“What if you brought along a book for you to read to him?” I offered. “You could pick a chapter book—or an anthology of stories—and that could become the special thing you share with him each week while his sister is in class.” I then added, only half-jokingly, “It’s my personal parenting mantra that few problems cannot be solved with a great children’s book.”
And then it hit me. I could solve my December problems with a great children’s book. We had only gotten through half the Christmas books brought down from our attic, normally one of our favorite traditions. Even still, I could feel my seven year old beginning to age out of these holiday picture books. Or maybe I was projecting my own boredom. I needed something fresh. Something juicy. Something that would lift the kids and me out of our holiday funk.
And then I came across a list of Christmas-themed chapter books, from the blog “What Do We Do all Day?” I went straight to the library and came home with the newly-published Winterfrost, by Michelle Houts (Ages 9-12; younger if reading aloud).
This book is pure deliciousness.
Let me start by saying that Winterfrost is much more of a winter story than a Christmas one (so, no, you haven’t missed the window in which to read it). It just happens to open on Christmas Eve—and actually, given the surprising turn of events, no Christmas celebration follows. Which means that if you don’t celebrate Christmas, you and your children won’t feel at all out of place here. It’s a timeless story—one I could easily imagine taking out year after year—and its innocent, transcendent handling makes it appropriate for a wide variety of ages.
The story takes place on a remote farm in Denmark, where twelve-year-old Bettina has been left to care for her almost one-year-old sister, while their parents are called away for a few days on an emergency. Practical, level-headed Bettina feels more than confident in her ability to balance the farm chores with keeping her sister’s nap schedule intact. And then, one morning, Bettina awakens to find the world shimmering and twinkling and quiet under the spell of a rare winterfrost. Soon after, her not-yet-walking baby sister disappears.
Bettina’s grandfather used to tell her that “the most mysterious events occur during winterfrost.” He also encouraged her to believe in what her eyes can’t always see—specifically, in the tiny gnome-like characters known in Danish legends as nisse. These benevolent, mischief-loving creatures secretly watch over a human family all year long, requiring only that a bowl of rice pudding be left out for them on Christmas Eve. (Do I need to tell you that, in the unusual circumstances of this particular Christmas, the bowl of pudding is overlooked by Bettina and her family? Not good. Not good at all.)
As Bettina embarks on a quest through the strange and enchanting nisse world, in order to negotiate the safe return of her sister before her parents discover what has happened, the story offers something for everyone. Have a daughter who is fairy-obsessed? She’ll love the miniature, three-hundred-year-old gnomes, with their tall red hats and their elaborate tree houses with acorn-sized furniture. Have a son who is hankering for suspense? Nearly every one of the 36 short chapters will leave him on the edge of his seat (or, in my son’s case, with the covers over his head, exclaiming, “Keep going! Don’t stop! It’s so intense!”). In a winterfrost, nothing is as it seems, and Bettina must unravel the complicated relationship between the nisse world and the human world.
Throughout Winterfrost, perspectives shift, determination is fierce, new friendships are forged, sibling love prevails—and all of this is cloaked in the wonderment of the natural world. Houts’ lyrical prose soars; it gives chills; it makes you want to snuggle your children close. Like any great book, it holds you tightly in the moment.
This book was such a hit with both of my children that, on several December evenings, I moved up dinner to give us an extra hour of reading time before bed. I got no complaints. The kids and I could not have been more excited to throw on our PJs, brush our teeth, and curl up to immerse ourselves in a magical wintery world. These were the best hours of my December. They grounded me; they returned me to myself; they made me temporarily forget the to dos and then remember why the to dos existed in the first place. Because the world is magical for those who believe. And for those who take the time to pay attention.
“It is the seer, after all, who must slow down enough to take note of the world around her.”
All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
December 4, 2014 § 1 Comment
Five years ago, when I learned I was having a girl, I self-righteously vowed that I would bar the door from tiaras and princess costumes and those scary high-heeled plastic dress-up shoes with the sequins on the toes. My daughter won’t equate beauty with Disney-fied princesses! My daughter will read books about trains and science and daring adventures! My daughter won’t be held back by stereotypes of femininity!
Of course, ultimatums rarely work out in parenting—nor are they usually for the best. Those of you with girls already know that The Princess Obsession eventually finds its way into the house—slipping through the gap beneath the front door, if need be. Before my kids watched Frozen, my daughter already knew the words to every song, just from listening to her classmates. Before my son pointed to a hot pink skirt with 20 layers of tulle at Target and said (in the sweetest voice, so how could I resist?), “Oh, Mommy, Emily would just love something like that”—before that, Emily was already coming home from play dates in borrowed glitter-encrusted frocks.
What I failed to anticipate as a new parent, is that there are complex dichotomies at work in the princess fantasies of my daughter and her friends. When playing, Emily is just as likely to wear her tulle skirt on her head than around her waist. She likes to pair her purple metallic slippers with a red superhero cape and an astronaut helmet.
“I’ve decided to ask Santa for a real Queen Elsa dress,” she announced the other night. “Oh yeah?” I said (trying not to wince too obviously). “And what will you do with an Elsa dress?”
“I will sing and dance around. Also, I will fight bad guys.”
For a long time, rebel princesses have popped up in children’s picture books (Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess is the most well known, although there are fun new additions, like Dangerously Ever After). Additionally, the teen market is ripe with re-imagined fairytale heroines (Robin McKinley’s Beauty tops my list). Now, at long last, it would appear that these princess rebels are making their way into early-reader literature, a category which as a whole is getting a much-needed makeover in quality and sophistication (you haven’t forgotten Dory Fantasmagory, have you?).
Authors Shannon Hale and Dean Hale’s The Princess in Black (Ages 5-8), a short chapter book for newly independent readers (and an equally terrific read-aloud), will be hard for any child (or parent) to resist. It’s everything a princess-and-superhero-loving girl could want: tulle and cape; dainty tea parties and wild romps in the forest; royalty and monsters. And the best part? Every single one of the 90 pages features a full-color illustration (this never happens in chapter books!) by the energetic LeUyen Pham. Oh, and did I mention that the book’s cover sports metallic ink?
When we first meet Princess Magnolia, she is decked out in a pink gown and glass slippers, perfectly upholding civility, while hosting the nosy, big-haired Duchess Wigtower over hot chocolate and scones.
But, we quickly learn, Princess Magnolia has a secret identity. For starters, she has a Monster Alarm embedded in the gemstone of her ring, designed to go off when monster mayhem is afloat. As we watch, Princess Magnolia politely excuses herself from the unsuspecting duchess, ducks into a broom closet, and trades her frilly pink ensemble for a black suit, black tights, and black cape (the tiara stays). Here comes my daughter’s favorite part: the Princess in Black then slides out of the castle through a secret chute and high jumps over the castle wall.
Once atop her unicorn-turned-masked-black stallion, PIB gallops off to fight crime (or “bad guys,” as my Emily would say).
When asking nicely doesn’t do the trick, the Princess in Black unleashes the perfect combination of “sparkle slams,” “princess pounces,” and “twinkle twinkle little smashes” to stop a hungry blue monster from devouring a trio of goats. We’re talking princess-style ninjitsu!
The Princess in Black blends action, grace, and humor. And the best news? There are hints about possible sequels! Duff the Goat Boy, thus far an innocent bystander, is the only one to suspect an uncanny likeness between the Princess in Black and Princess Magnolia. Do we hear rumblings of a future sidekick for the PIB?
I still worry about the too-skinny, high-heel-wearing princesses (rebels or not) that grace contemporary movie screens and literature. But I also enjoy watching how comfortably my daughter seems to reside in the space between dichotomies of “female” and “male,” “princess” and “rebel.” This generation of girls will forge their own path in the world—and we had better get out of their way.
All opinions are my own. Review copy provided by Candlewick publishing. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!
September 13, 2014 § 6 Comments
I may be only seven years into this parenting gig, but one thing about which I’m certain is that I will never adjust to the noise. I’m talking about the incessant chatter; the shrieks of siblings chasing each other around the house; the whining about being hungry 15 minutes after a meal. At no time was this more evident than this past summer, when I was around my kids nearly every waking hour. Don’t get me wrong: I loved our lazy mornings, reading books in our PJs until 11am; I loved feeling a little hand in each of mine as the three of us rounded dirt paths; I loved huddling tight against my son in the last car of a roller coaster whipping around curves. Yes, we had wonderful hours together—hours when the questions and the observations and even the screaming seemed perfectly lovely. But, at some point, there would be this:
Picture me in the car, driving us home from a packed morning of puppet show, playground, and picnic. The kids are rosy-cheeked, ice-cream-stained, and happy. It’s one of those moments where you think, yup, I’m totally rocking this summer thing. Best. Mom. Ever. And you’re looking forward to a nice relaxing drive, listening to the radio and watching the trees fly by.
JP (from the backseat, as we merge onto the highway): “Mommy, VA is the abbreviation for Virginia.”
Me (flushed with pride at my sweet, smart son): “That’s right, honey!”
JP: “Mommy, VA is the abbreviation for Virginia.”
Me: “Yes, I heard you. And you are absolutely right!”
JP: “Mommy, VA is the abbreviation for Virginia.”
JP: “Mommy, VA is the abbreviation for Virginia.”
Me (suddenly seized by the notion that I am trapped in a moving metal box that is simultaneously pressing against the sides of my skull and sucking the oxygen out of my lungs): “What do you want from me? Why on God’s green earth are you saying the same thing over and over? What can I say to make you STOP TALKING FOR JUST ONE SINGLE SECOND OF THIS CAR RIDE SO I CAN HEAR MYSELF THINK??!!”
It’s little wonder that, weeks later when my kids would at last return to school, I would bask in the deliciousness of silence. I know many of you know just what I mean. Of course, then I come to find out, courtesy of Loren Long’s new installment in his beloved picture book series about a tractor named Otis, that I might have had some moments of silence all along. If only I had thought to make a game of it. In Otis and the Scarecrow (Ages 3-7), Otis challenges his animal friends to a game of who can stay quiet the longest. (Seriously, why did I never think of this?) My kids find the antics involved in the animals trying to outlast each other to be absolutely hilarious: the bull eventually twitches his nose, setting off a chain effect of wiggling duck bottoms and erupting equine giggles, until those few minutes of peace and quiet are once again a thing of the past.
There’s something fitting, I suppose, about this game hitting its stride, not in summer, but in fall. Long’s evocative pencil and gouache illustrations, bursting with warm oranges and browns, call to mind everything I love about fall, from the pumpkin patches to the crunch of the leaves. It’s a season that naturally demands a bit of quiet, as we watch, smell, or listen to the transformations around us. It’s also a season ripe with new acquaintances and the possibility for new friends. In Otis’ case, the newcomer on the farm is a mysteriously silent scarecrow. Otis and the animals initially take the scarecrow’s silence for disdain and snub him in return (there’s a subtle lesson here about the haste with which we dismiss what we don’t understand). But Otis finds himself increasingly drawn back to the scarecrow, admiring his stoicism in the face of hard rain and pecking crows. As Otis is eventually brave enough to discover, a scarecrow can also kick some serious butt in The Quiet Game.
Fall, with its increasingly dark nights, its jack-o-lanterns, and its natural surprises, seems laced with a kind of magic. I love a book that asks us—parents and children alike—to slow down, to hush up, and to open up ourselves to the very magic unfolding around us. “[A]s Otis watched, he couldn’t be sure, but he thought he might have seen the scarecrow smile.” It’s amazing what a few moments of quiet can do.
Our Other Favorite Otis Books, written and illustrated by Loren Long:
Otis (Ages 3-6)
Otis and the Tornado (Ages 4-7; reviewed here)
Otis and the Puppy (Ages 3-6; reviewed here)
An Otis Christmas (Ages 4-7; reviewed here)
April 14, 2013 § 1 Comment
Spring is a time of rebirth: a time of budding trees, sprouting seeds, and birthday parties. As for the last, you’re in luck, because there is a brand new Otis story on the shelves! Whether or not you’re familiar with Loren Long’s stunningly illustrated and action-packed picture books about Otis (see previous posts here), a happy-go-lucky tractor who always comes through for his friends, the new Otis and the Puppy (Ages 3-6) is a slam-dunk. Get your local bookstore to wrap up a copy for every one of your spring birthday parties; and don’t worry about whether the recipient has read the original Otis or Otis and the Tornado because, like its predecessors, Otis and the Puppy stands alone. This new book has it all: heart, empathy, heroism, and a doe-eyed, playful-eared puppy. When the puppy arrives on the farm, he develops an immediate fondness for the tractor; he eagerly joins in Otis’ games of Hide and Seek and sleeps each night against the purring tractor. Otis quickly learns that the puppy and him have something in common: they’re both afraid of the dark. So when the puppy strays too far from the farm one afternoon and is not recovered by bedtime, Otis’ “heart ached deep inside his engine. He knew how scared of the dark his new friend was and…he knew his friend needed him.” But can Otis muster up the courage to leave the safety of the barn to search for his friend in the dark?
I’ve been thinking a lot about courage lately—about how often we call on our children to be brave (the daily list is long: walking up the steps into school; removing training wheels; staying in bed during a thunderstorm). If there’s something children can relate to, it’s the fear behind being brave (didn’t someone once define courage as the act of being afraid and doing it anyway?). The first time I read Otis and the Puppy aloud to my children, their awe was palpable: “Otis is so brave, Mommy,” whispered my son, as a quivering Otis enters the pitched black forest with only his headlights to guide him. “Mind over matter,” my mother used to preach to us when we were afraid; and Otis indeed uses his imagination to calm his nerves, counting “one-putt, two-puff, three puttedy,” as if in the middle of an ordinary game of Hide and Seek. On a recent spring break trip to Florida, my son came up against his very great fear of swimming. For a week, my husband and I tried to coax him into the water above his waist. “My body is saying no, my body is afraid!” he shrieked. “Do you remember what Otis did when he was afraid in the forest?” I offered. “I don’t want to talk about Otis!” he shot back (I could almost hear him as an adult telling his shrink, “My Mom was always trying to compare my life to picture books.” Oops.) Yet, a few days later, when my husband was at last holding his hands and guiding him on his belly through the water, he looked at me, grinned, and exclaimed, “Mommy, I’m counting in my head, and it’s helping!” We’re still a long way off from putting our head in the water, but with literary heroes to inspire us, I know we’ll get there one day.